Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I have listened carefully to the Minister's reasoning, for which there is some justification. Being keen to be a stickler for procedural propriety, the hon. Gentleman gave the impression of being fairly insouciant about the length of time that the determination of appeals might take, but that is not something about which I feel comparable insouciance.

Mr. Clarke: If the hon. Gentleman had seen me in my private moments, he would know that I am not insouciant about the matter. The time taken to resolve matters by the Crown court and the magistrates court is one of the most serious problems in our criminal justice system, which is why I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked Lord Justice Auld to conduct a full-scale review of such matters to achieve much faster justice. That will be better for all concerned. I should not like it to be put on the record that I am in any sense relaxed about such matters.

Mr. Bercow: I am very much reassured by the Minister's argument. It was almost as though someone invisible and unbeknown to me had crept into the Room and delivered a sharp kick to his posterior. He had given the impression of being relaxed and indifferent about the matter, but I am happy to take it from him that he is far from that. It may be that he wanted to make other points, but I am glad that he is concerned about such matters.

The Minister will recognise that there is an element of quid pro quo and simple fair play involved. What do I mean by that? If we judge it right to impose obligations upon businesses—it being right and proper that we should do so from time to time; particularly about the time within which things are to be done—it is not unreasonable that we should apply similar principles to our own behaviour or to that of institutions that, through legislation, are involved in the process. I recognise that magistrates courts are properly independent of the House; nevertheless, their involvement in the process is the result of, and attendant upon, the passage of legislation.

The Minister could send a clear signal today, and subsequently on Report, that he expects proper progress to be made. I do not understand why it should take all that long to determine an appeal as, in most cases, the particulars should be straightforward. These will not be the sorts of complex fraud cases tried in the criminal courts; in most instances, they will be straightforward matters. Therefore, although appeals should not take a long time, it is important to establish as a principle that they should not, and that a quick decision must be made on whether businesses should be allowed to continue.

5.45 pm

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point regarding the need for such matters to be dealt with quickly, if only to stimulate the business to carry on trading. Does he agree that we should, therefore, maintain the lay magistracy?

The Chairman: Order. That is totally out of order.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend was tempting me to indulge in improper behaviour; as you know, Mr. O'Brien, I am loath ever to indulge in such behaviour, being a great respecter of the traditions of the House.

Mr. Clarke: Once bitten, twice shy.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister, who is in a spectacularly good, but spectacularly corny, mood observes from a sedentary position, ``Once bitten, twice shy.'' We have done the point to death—almost as clinically as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield did the aforementioned spider to death, for which I do not blame him. Notwithstanding the principle of kindness to animals, my hon. Friend could hardly be expected not to respond with alacrity to the injury inflicted upon him.

The Minister has made some useful points this afternoon. He and his hon. Friends will note that I am, if not non-committal on the subject, reluctant to endorse everything he said. There is merit in reading the record and spending a period of time reflecting on the arguments; why should one not do so, given that Report follows this Committee? There will be an opportunity to return to these matters—or not, depending on the merits of the case. I am not minded to pursue the issue now; I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave,withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Keeping of records

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friends and I have not tabled any amendments to this clause or to clause 8; neither has the hon. Member for Colchester, despite the bold claims he made for himself earlier. However, that does not mean that we should not ask relevant questions.

The point in the clause that caught my eye—I am sure that it occurred to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, too—is in subsection (4) and, by implication, subsection (3). That subsection specifies that ``regulations under this section''—in other words, regulations providing for the keeping of records by registered persons—

    may specify provisions of the regulations as provisions to which subsection (4) applies.

That is an enabling device, and may be none the worse for it. However, I am a trifle concerned and do not think that the matter should go by without explanation from the Minister.

Subsection (4)—for the elucidation of all interested parties—states that a

    person who contravenes any provision to which this subsection applies shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

That is a provision for an offence and a fine for the offence, but subsection (3) tells us that regulations made under it may specify provisions to which the offence and the fine will apply. Although it confers upon the Secretary of State an enabling power, it fights shy of the detail; it does not say what the offences may typically be, and that causes me some concern.

We know that many matters are dealt with through regulation. However, I am bound to say—my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield will no doubt concur—that the trend towards more government by regulation and the onward march of secondary legislation are matters of considerable concern and regret. I recognise that it happens, but am concerned about the extent to which it happens, and the fact that regulations can be made in circumstances that legislators could not have predicted at the time. It is worth emphasising my concerns even more if the regulations, which would elaborate on points and create new offences and fines, were not themselves to be the subject of the affirmative procedure of the House, but nodded through by the infinitely inferior negative procedure.

Mr. Fabricant: Given the increasing tendency of the Government towards secondary legislation, does my hon. Friend share my lack of surprise that the Institute of Directors and the Institute of Management have both expressed concern over regulations that are not contained in Bills? They were not referring to this Bill—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There should not be sedentary interruptions.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend share my lack of surprise at the concern expressed by those bodies about proposals which, although they are not in the Bill, provide a burden on businesses?

Mr. Bercow: I am certainly not surprised that representative business organisations have expressed concern about this trend. There is good reason for that concern.

Mr. Clarke: Will the hon. Member for Buckingham take the opportunity of confirming that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Lichfield has stated, neither the Institute of Directors nor the Institute of Management has objected to the clauses that we are debating? I may, I admit, have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. Reputable industry bodies are in favour of the regulations because they want to drive out the criminals in their midst.

Mr. Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I said that those bodies had objected not to this Bill, but to others.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. O'Brien. It may not have been a point of order, but it was a point eloquently made by my hon. Friend, and I hope that he can rest content that he has made it so clearly.

The Minister is right to say that the organisations want to get on with the job, do not object to the regulations and are anxious to tackle the criminals. That is all well and good, and the Minister is justified in referring to that and invoking it in his support. However, I hope that he will not trample on the notion of procedural propriety. The fact that interested parties can broadly envisage the regulations, and predict with confidence and approve of their purpose, does not obviate the need for rational discussion about those regulations. That is especially relevant when they involve the creation of offences and of penalties for offences.

It is no surprise that the Institute of Directors and other august industry representative bodies have not complained about the clause. I intend no discourtesy to clause 7, in so far as it has a personality to offend, but it is relatively small beer in the scheme of things. The Minister should be aware that there is a veritable avalanche of legislation and regulation with which businesses can legitimately preoccupy themselves, and about which they can and do complain. So the clause is unlikely to be a hot item on their agenda for immediate protest.

Nevertheless, my point stands. Even if the detailed draft regulations on the keeping of records are not yet available—I do not see a good reason why they should not be available on Report—[Interruption.] I put that to the Minister as a request, which seems to have caused a frisson of excitement. It should be possible to give an idea of the sorts of failures, omissions or improprieties in relation to record keeping that would constitute offences, and which would therefore be subject to penalty.

The clause is very short, and sets out a straightforward and entirely unobjectionable purpose. I therefore cannot see why the range of offences should be infinite. Indeed, it is not made clear, in relation to record keeping, that the range of offences could be extensive. I do not understand why it is necessary to have a Henry VIII clause—or, rather, Henry VIII subsection. Why cannot the point be elucidated before we are invited to assent to the clause? In terms of reasonableness, I do not think that I can be bettered.

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Prepared 16 January 2001